At this time last year, Steeler Nation was engaged in a healthy debate about the competition for the starting quarterback job while Ben Roethlisberger served a four-game suspension to start the season. Many hoped Dennis Dixon would win the competition during training camp and the preseason; others argued for the more experienced Byron Leftwich, who rose to the occasion and delivered a much-needed win for the Steelers during his lone significant appearance during the 2008 season. Ivan Cole even made the case for Charlie Batch before the calendar turned to September, a prescient perspective it turned out, though not one most had given much thought to.Turns out we got to see all three in action before Roethlisberger's returned to face the Cleveland Browns in Week 6 after the team's bye week.
Fast forward to this year. With the lockout in place for over four months, we still didn't really even find it all that important to talk about the quarterback situation despite having all the time in the world to speculate about backup position battles.
Of course, Big Ben faces no suspension to start the season, and obviously he's proven himself to be one of the league's very best quarterbacks. But you still never know what the future holds in the violent NFL. For a team with legitimate Super Bowl chances in 2011, it's important to make sure there's contingency plan(s) in place at the most important position.
So what are the backup quarterback options at the Steelers' disposal? The team's website still lists the same trio of Dixon, Leftwich and Batch on the roster, but only Leftwich's situation is cut and dry.
The 36-year old Batch achieved cult legend status last season when he guided the Steelers to a 2-1 record in emergency duty, but as of now, he's not under contract. Not that it would take him eons to get prepared physically, but it's worth noting that he probably hasn't spent nearly as much time working out this offseason due to his responsibilities as the Steelers player rep in the CBA negotiations. More importantly, it's hard to imagine the Steelers keeping four quarterbacks on the roster under any circumstance. Big Ben is one, Leftwich, who has one year remaining on his two-year deal, will be in the mix. Then there's Dennis Dixon, who was offered a restricted free agent tender just days before the lockout. With just three years of accrued service, there's zero chance that Dixon will be anything buy a restricted free agent under the provisions of any new CBA.
Batch's situation would be helped by another team making a bid on Dixon and the Steelers allowing him to walk. That would allow Batch to slide in to the No. 3 role, earn a paycheck, serve more as a coach than anything, but be available just in case Roethlisberger got injured, followed by Leftwich either also getting injured or struggling mightily.
Hopefully all of this is a moot point and Big Ben will play a full season and at a high level. That's a fairly safe bet despite the fact that he's taken plenty of beatings in and out of the pocket the past four seasons. But it's hard to infer with any sort of certainty just how well his foot might be feeling at this point in time. He'll be ready to play and he'll fight through any pain he might be experiencing. That's what Big Ben does. But still, as I mentioned at the outset, teams with complete rosters have to have a safety valve at QB, even if their No. 1 guy has a track record of durability.
So, what do you think will shake out at the backup QB position?